Ghosts in the Machine: Neil Blomkamp’s ‘Demonic’ Melds Tech with the Occult

Demonic, the latest film from South African-Canadian wunderkind Neil Blomkamp, begins with protagonist Carly (Carly Pope) searching through an abandoned mental hospital for her mother Angela (Nathalie Boltt). This opening dream sequence illustrates the main dynamic between the two characters – Carly is searching for Angela, but knows that she may not like what she finds.

To say that the pair have a complicated relationship is to put it mildly. Carly has not seen her mother in years, following an incident in which her mother killed several people by setting fire to a nursing home. Now, Angela is herself a victim, ‘locked in’ to a state of total paralysis. A medical research institute invites Carly to take part in an experimental therapy. Using state-of-the-art tech, the group will allow Carly to enter into her mother’s imagination and communicate with her. But does the group have a hidden agenda? Moreover, was her mother’s crime a result of psychosis, or is the cause something more sinister? Perhaps something is lurking in her mind, waiting for Carly to enter its trap.

The simulated reality has an interesting look to it. It has some of the cell-shaded quality of Richard Linklater films like A Scanner Darkly, but with hints of jagged pixels and compression artefacts accenting the edges of the figures. It’s not the most awe-inspiring representation of cyberspace, but it does a good job of portraying a computer system straining at the edges of its ability to render information into images.

These sequences were created using volumetric capture, a kind of three-dimensional video system in which actors are recorded by a complicated rig of 260 cameras. It’s a pretty staggering bit of kit, and Blomkamp has been very frank about the frustrations of working with such a complex system. That he persevered with it reflects an impressive commitment to cinematic innovation.

Unfortunately, this visual flair is not counterpointed by the rest of the film. If the character’s waking life were visually rich and textural then it would create an interesting contrast with the digital reality. As it is, the world of Demonic is almost comically bland. From the set design to the costuming, the film looks as if someone booting up the Sims and set everything to ‘default’.

Without this visual contrast, the scenes in the virtual world feel really out of place. They aren’t uncanny or strange enough to contribute to the horror atmosphere. Call us entitled, but when we’re entering the world of the imagination, we hope to see something slightly more interesting than the inside of a suburban home. It seems more like Blomkamp was excited to experiment with a new bit of kit rather than thinking about how to use it in service of the story.

One of the strongest sections of the film involves the monster from the dreamscape, a kind of multi-limbed bird creature that Blomkamp says was inspired by plague doctor imagery. When the monster intrudes into the real world and chases Carly, it’s one of the few scenes that really nails the horror and, tellingly, it’s one that relies on physical effects.

A sense of flatness pervades some of the performances and script as well. Characters posit theories that are almost instantly confirmed, never giving them space to breathe and develop tension. Cool ideas (Vatican super-soldiers with demon hunting tech, anyone?) go underdeveloped or ignored. The masterminds behind the sinister institute have all the villainous presence of an office managers’ convention. Even Carly Pope’s performance is lacklustre. She delivers fear and panic very well in the horror scenes, but outside of these she delivers lines in a very monotone way, offering the audience very little to latch on to.

Despite its flaws, as film fans we feel hesitant to offer Demonic too much criticism. Blomkamp entered into the movie when COVID halted production of his latest large-scale project. Rather than simply wait until production could resume, he entered into Demonic with limited time, a limited budget, and more or less confining all of his locations to those within driving distance of his home. Even within those limitations, however, there is a real lack of ambition here. Despite the shiny new bit of kit that Blomkamp has to play with, the rest of the film plays things jarringly safe. The end result is unfortunately forgettable.


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